Restoring John Steinbeck’s Western Flyer | for Seattle Weekly cover
Backed into the southwest corner of a large, unassuming dry dock in Port Townsend, Washington is a vessel with plenty of history. Maybe you’ve heard of John Steinbeck’s book The Sea of Cortez? This is the boat that took him and his team on their epic, problem-laden-but-ultimately-successful tour of the Gulf of California, then in its prime 75 years ago.
Today, the boat has new ownership under John Gregg, a geologist who spent $1 mil to call it his, and will likely have to spend a similar amount to fully restore it. Still, he’s dedicated to getting the boat ship-shape. Other people have tried before yet failed to do so, starting and stopping the restoration process for one reason or another – often financial, sometimes personal. There’s much more to this story, well-told in a fascinating piece by Patrick Hutchison.
The owner was unavailable for a portrait, but his manager for the project is Mike York, a longtime Seattleite who spends most of the week working slowly but surely to coordinate getting this boat back to order. I got the call last Friday from Seattle Weekly to head up to meet Mike the next day. Port Townsend is a ferry ride and an hour and a half of driving, but I’m not complaining. It was nice to check out of town for the morning and cruise through the countryside. Eventually I arrived at the dry dock. I knew what the boat looked like from Google but it wasn’t jumping out at me. I asked around. Did anyone know the John Steinbeck boat? A few workers threw back sympathetic but unhelpful stares. I had one more area to check out and there it was, nestled between cargo containers, a forklift and a set of hand built wooden stairs reaching to deck height.
This, was the Western Flyer.
Afterward, Mike asked if I wanted to climb aboard for a peek inside. That just required scaling the stairs and then a narrow ladder. With my c-stand and studio light. Oh well. Every day is arm day when you’re a lighting photographer I guess. It was worth it anyway to see what is best described as a Titanic-esque scene. Just wall-to-wall barnacles capped off by grime and rust-covered artifacts from previous owners and occupants.
Space was at a premium. I hunched into the corner with my wide angle to try and show what sinking and years of decay will do to a place. The wall left a fine coat of white dust down my back. Cest la vie. Normally I am assigned to photograph people or preparing meticulous staged product photography, and I enjoy this work, yet getting the chance to document something in disrepair, so completely varnished, just lost in a time capsule, made for one of the most fascinating shoots yet of 2015.